Trail blazer (August 1995)
By the first week of August, the torrential rains of July had abated, paving way for the much anticipated break -the short dry season. And during the vacation when most kids were running around barefooted or playing football in the morning, I was busy gathering insects, digging anthills in the environs, digging like an archeologist into the past, into ancient castles, defunct colonies and cities. My hands became full of blisters from the mandibles of soldiers fending off attacks on their territory and the marksman with the mightiest head passed for king.
‘Chike, snakes could be hiding in the hollows,’ Ma screamed one day from the corridor. But her motherly caution did not deter me in the least. Eventually my folly would come to an end, but the story in my head did not leave- my thoughts of humans as social insects. Lately I have forayed into writing about this dome of white ants but I am not wholly satisfied. I am always incinerating my drafts- immolating myself like the mythical phoenix and Ma feels that I am gradually losing my mind; my mind keeps wandering back to the haunts of my childhood.
By mid-August my contemporaries – most of whom attended the preppy Montessori secondary school – had enrolled for extra murals. Their parents had chided them, ‘don’t be like these bad boys gallivanting around the staff quarters that do no chores at home or study their books.’ I was disturbed, so I enrolled towards the end of August, but it was not so much out of a desire to learn but to be at par with my mates; I didn’t want to be left behind.
In the following days, I noticed a couple of smart lads; amongst the boys, the smartest was the bespectacled Adam who will later be known as Avogadro’s law for his prowess in the physical sciences. He had a lot of crazy ideas then. He theorized that lightning bugs generate watts of electricity and dragon flies could not be grasped by the human fingers. I am not sure these days of the bioluminescence of glow worms. The brainiest student in the preparatory class was Ada, subtle like a turtle, lovely as dove. She solved all the equations accurately and her diction was excellent. The spoken English of the boys was average, tainted with a lot of Pidgin which rendered us as essentially home-grown.
I wasn’t doing too well. I recall in one of my sums, I scored one out of ten. I had to conceal my scripts. I turned to humor, the jester in the class to relieve me of an inner excruciating experience. The answers I got were by sheer stroke of luck. The timeliest answer I got was the seventh law of indices. I was dead mute for a while. ‘You know the answer,’ the master prodded me. ‘A raised to the power of zero equals one.’ I said. It seemed all conjectural but I was exact for once in my life. I was slightly happy I impressed Ada and everyone. From then on, August became my luckiest or most significant month in a year.
Other side of the equation
September for me was usually a month of tension and anxiety. This time I was awaiting my promotion results. I did not want to fail, but l wasn’t sure l would pass either. If l failed the delectable Ada would go ahead of me. Was it simply envy or admiration? How can a girl be smarter than I am? Ma came back one Friday evening with sweat on her brow. She didn’t utter a word to me. She asked Diane the house help for a glass of water, which she gulped quickly. That night she called me into her room. ‘You failed,’ she said quietly. I felt like sobbing but like an adult the tears did not rain down from my eyes. ‘Your dad must not see this result, it is dreadful,’ she added grimly. I knew the calamity in store for me, but I had accepted my fate. I would repeat and embrace the shame. For my struggling family payment of another year’s school fees was far-fetched.
Hunger was rife and morale was low amongst civil servants; they were overworked and underpaid, and most of them had no cars then; the visible cars were Volkswagen and the ubiquitous Peugeot 504 salon car or the wagon and families thrived on subsistence farming; planting on arable lands that bounded the estate. Fastidious mums maintained strict eating regimes and proclaimed fasts (hunger strikes); the fasts were purely a ritualistic affair simply to prettify the situation. Those were the days when families that ate garri as their staple food morning, afternoon and night were pitied and regarded as poor and malnourished; sadly not nowadays.
It was during that hard-nosed time that Pa acquired a color fourteen inches Sharp television. A colour television was a rarity in those days; the commonest was a black and white television which was a luxury. The TV was a huge distraction.
Pa had always reiterated that I repeat a class. He was mad that at my age, I was unaware that I should capitalize the letter at the beginning of each sentence.
Ma handed me the result sheet, ‘promoted on trial’. It was the second in a sequence. I wanted to celebrate. I had to contain my joy, to show my remorse. My head was bent down in penitence ‘No more going out or playing, I will draw a reading timetable for you,’ she said determinedly.
A week later, Pa caught me and my siblings watching telly (Pa calls it the dead box) at eight pm. ‘Switch it off, go and get your books,’ he thundered. Like a gathering disrupted abruptly by a rainstorm, we disappeared to the dining room clutching our notebooks and texts, reading pretentiously. Pa’s anger was fiery at such times; his face was hard and inapproachable, like a blazing sun at its zenith. Pa always sermonized and his exemplar were the ants; Proverbs 6 verse 6; ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard consider his ways and be wise.’
He gave me some simultaneous equations to solve, to submit in thirty minutes. I sat at the dining table, unable to reconcile the variables. I looked at the ceilings for answers. Thirty minutes passed. One hour… I knew I would be punished. I waited. The day’s toil had taken its toll on him. The light in his room was already switched off, and a soft Christian music was playing in the background; he had slept.
I kept vigils afterwards praying every day that he doesn’t ask me for my results. I postponed the evil day subtly, avoiding him or any kind of contact.
Before the end of September 1995, Ada and her parents became our neighbors, living adjacent to our house. It delighted me; it would afford me the opportunity to peek at her from the window. Her parents looked uptight, but I had the antidote; there were silly things kids did then to such reclusive people; we would press their bell irritatingly or rap at the door intermittently and go into hiding, just to grab their attention.
Ada always sang hymns in the living room. Her parents were Presbyterians. I loved to hear her sing from a hearing distance. It was ineffable, just like finding the onomatopoeic word for the sound the canary makes on a dying windy afternoon- birdsong- chirping-Chirruping; it was simply indefinable. By my window I observed her continually, and noted when she left for the boarding house. Her face was usually sober. It also left me with a feeling of despair. She was probably missing her home, her sisters and her parents, which made her sad and less enthusiastic about school. Often I bothered how she coped because I simply ran away from the boarding house, and became a day student because of the bullying and cruelty of the senior students. Dinner time at the refectory was the most miserable. We were always served a messy beans meal and traditionally the boarders would sing, ‘some have food but cannot eat, some can eat but have no food, we have food and we can eat, glory be to the Lord Amen.’ Tears always welled up in my eyes; tears for some destitute or famished child elsewhere; tears for the sad melody and the hungry agony of having little to eat.
By the beginning of October 1995, we studied the abridged version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist with pictorials. The most humorous passage was where scrawny hungry Oliver asked the stewardess in the dorm for more food. It became the refrain in class, ‘Oliver Twist I want some more.’ My classmates turned towards my direction. I was the skinniest guy and I was nicknamed unanimously Oliver Twist. Everyone had a nickname derived from a deficiency or bodily excessiveness; bag of salt for the overweight guy, owl’s eye for the guy with the bulbous eyes, elephantine ear for the guy with floppy ears. My name changed severally, from Oliver Twist to Oliver, to Twist; and then to Twisted in 1996, the year Keith Sweat released his hit single twisted which had so much air play.
That same month I learnt of the Devil’s triangle, where ships and airlines disappear, and my science teacher said it was due to magnetic force though it was widely believed to be due to extra-terrestrial presence and a remote factor responsible for the end of the 2nd world war. All I remember in his science club was something close to myth, fairytale and misadventure. I also actively participated in the literary and debating club, loved the guttural English master reading Africa by David Diop. All these before the affirmation of love became template and a cliché. Long before I discovered that the word Uhuru was not English like Pythagorean Eureka but a Swahili word for freedom.
By the end of October, my own enthusiasm for school was rock bottom, though I was in a junior certificate class and expectations were high. Some languid days I’d feign illness or hide under a pile of cloths in the wardrobe and wait for everyone to leave the house. I loved the loneliness, gleaning at life through the observatory. My memories of those days are faint and fleeting as the glimpse of a beautiful woman on a sidewalk, the kind one never hopes to see again. But I always remember the yellowness of those days, the tresses of the palm trees that tilted to the slow music of the wind at pre-noon and the laborers sweating on the lawn and the fields.
The eleventh hour
November was the penultimate month, the precursor to better things, the usherette of the dry season with the first cattle egret coming to spy the surroundings. This was before the rapid climate change, before rains started pouring down in the rain forest on the first of January persisting to November; before the egrets stopped heralding the dry season.
By the second week Ada returned for the mid- term break. It was a huge relief. She was staying for a week and I made deliberate and mawkish attempts to meet her on the way. I prayed to meet her but just like prayers it was not always answered immediately. Luckily one afternoon I chanced on her; I lost the courage to say hi. We passed each other without muttering a word, and she stared blankly. Sometimes I would pass her with her sisters, Hannah and Elle on the tarmac, all of whom their dad oddly gave palindromic names. Ada would be smiling waiting for me to say a word. Then she would giggle with her sisters and I will turn back to see them glancing too.
All this while, before the extra murals, I never really noticed her; in fact she was unnoticeable as a child just like a dim night star. My recollection of her was the memory of a young girl riding a bicycle leisurely around the circumference of the lawn tennis court of the staff quarters.
I saw the bleak walls of hostility surrounding her. Most evenings after the close of work, Ada’s dad sat on the verandah of his house so saturnine, a Buddha god with his daughters curtsying and attending to him. He was so massive and in the dark his looming image like a ghost scarred little kids.
After a week she was off to school. Then I stumbled on Weep not child by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, which read more like autobiography. Although my story was not exactly on all fours, I saw myself then as Njoroge the hero with the calico piece and Ada as Mwihaki, the heroine. I disliked the hopeless ending of the story, wishing Mwihaki eloped with Njoroge to Uganda.
With each passing day, I observed the countdown to December and the winding up of the long and boring first term. By the 1st day of December, Yuletide was in the air, the atmosphere was hazy and preparatory and the radio stations were resonating with the twelve days of Christmas. And I was waiting for my true love with all the hens, turtles, partridges and sentiments of the season.